The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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by Anthony Veasna So

Paperback (7 Jun 2022), 288 pages.
Publisher: Ecco
ISBN-13: 9780063049895

A vibrant story collection about Cambodian-American life - immersive and comic, yet unsparing - that offers profound insight into the intimacy of queer and immigrant communities.

Seamlessly transitioning between the absurd and the tenderhearted, balancing acerbic humor with sharp emotional depth, Afterparties offers an expansive portrait of the lives of Cambodian-Americans. As the children of refugees carve out radical new paths for themselves in California, they shoulder the inherited weight of the Khmer Rouge genocide and grapple with the complexities of race, sexuality, friendship, and family.

A high school badminton coach and failing grocery store owner tries to relive his glory days by beating a rising star teenage player. Two drunken brothers attend a wedding afterparty and hatch a plan to expose their shady uncle's snubbing of the bride and groom. A queer love affair sparks between an older tech entrepreneur trying to launch a "safe space" app and a disillusioned young teacher obsessed with Moby-Dick. And in the sweeping final story, a nine-year-old child learns that his mother survived a racist school shooter.

The stories in Afterparties, "powered by So's skill with the telling detail, are like beams of wry, affectionate light, falling from different directions on a complicated, struggling, beloved American community" (George Saunders).

This is the full text of the first story in Anthony Veasna So's Afterparties

Three Women of Chuck's Donuts

The first night the man orders an apple fritter, it is three in the morning, the streetlamp is broken, and California Delta mist obscures the waterfront's run-down buildings, except for Chuck's Donuts, with its cool fluorescent glow. "Isn't it a bit early for an apple fritter?" the owner's twelve-year-old daughter, Kayley, deadpans from behind the counter, and Tevy, four years older, rolls her eyes and says to her sister, "You watch too much TV."

The man ignores them both, sits down at a booth, and proceeds to stare out the window, at the busted potential of this small city's downtown. Kayley studies the man's reflection in the window. He's older but not old, younger than her parents, and his wiry mustache seems misplaced, from a different decade. His face wears an expression full of those mixed-up emotions that only adults must feel, like plaintive, say, or wretched. His light-gray suit is disheveled, his tie undone.

An hour passes. Kayley whispers to Tevy, "It looks like he's just staring at his own face," to which Tevy says, "I'm trying to study."

The man finally leaves. His apple fritter remains untouched on the table.

"What a trip," Kayley says. "Wonder if he's Cambodian."

"Not every Asian person in this city is Cambodian," Tevy says.

Approaching the empty booth, Kayley examines the apple fritter more closely. "Why would you come in here, sit for an hour, and not eat?"

Tevy stays focused on the open book resting on the laminate countertop.

Their mom walks in from the kitchen, holding a tray of glazed donuts. She is the owner, though she isn't named Chuck—her name is Sothy—and she's never met a Chuck in her life; she simply thought the name was American enough to draw customers. She slides the tray into a cooling rack, then scans the room to make sure her daughters have not let another homeless man inside.

"How can the streetlamp be out?" Sothy exclaims. "Again!" She approaches the windows and tries to look outside but sees mostly her own reflection—stubby limbs sprouting from a grease-stained apron, a plump face topped by a cheap hairnet. This is a needlessly harsh view of herself, but Sothy's perception of the world becomes distorted when she stays in the kitchen too long, kneading dough until time itself seems measured in the number of donuts produced. "We will lose customers if this keeps happening."

"It's fine," Tevy says, not looking up from her book. "A customer just came in."

"Yeah, this weird man sat here for, like, an hour," Kayley says.

"How many donuts did he buy?" Sothy asks.

"Just that," Kayley says, pointing at the apple fritter still sitting on the table.

Sothy sighs. "Tevy, call PG&E."

Tevy looks up from her book. "They aren't gonna answer."

"Leave a message," Sothy says, glaring at her older daughter.

"I bet we can resell this apple fritter," Kayley says. "I swear, he didn't touch it. I watched him the whole time."

"Kayley, don't stare at customers," Sothy says, before returning to the kitchen, where she starts prepping more dough, wondering yet again how practical it is to drag her daughters here every night. Maybe Chuck's Donuts should be open during normal times only, not for twenty-four hours each day, and maybe her daughters should go live with their father, at least some of the time, even if he can hardly be trusted after what he pulled.

She contemplates her hands, the skin discolored and rough, at once wrinkled and sinewy. They are the hands of her mother, who fried homemade cha quai in the markets of Battambang until she grew old and tired and the markets disappeared and her hands went from twisting dough to picking rice in order to serve the Communist ideals of a genocidal regime. How funny, Sothy thinks, that decades after the camps, she lives here in Central California, as a business owner, with her American-born Cambodian daughters who have grown healthy and stubborn, and still, in this new life she has created, her hands have aged into her mother's.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So . Copyright © 2021 by Anthony Veasna So . Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The children of Cambodian immigrants to the United States contend with inherited trauma and existential dead ends.

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Between 1975 and 1979, nearly a quarter of the population of Cambodia (close to two million people) was killed in the genocide orchestrated by the communist party Khmer Rouge under the leadership of party secretary Pol Pot. Around 158,000 Cambodians came to the United States as refugees from 1975-1994, with many settling in Long Beach or Stockton, California (see Beyond the Book). Anthony Veasna So's parents were two such refugees and So grew up in Stockton. The stories in his debut collection Afterparties read like compartments in the interior of the author's mind, these characters people he has known and been, loved and been loved by.

In "Three Women of Chuck's Donuts," a woman named Sothy ("she's never met a Chuck in her life; she simply thought the name American enough to draw customers") runs a donut shop, with her two young daughters — Kayley and Tevy — spending most of their time after school helping out. The story is set just after the 2008 economic crisis and their sole customer, night after night, is a man who orders a single apple fritter and sits for hours staring blankly out the window. As the women of Chuck's Donuts observe this nightly ritual, the story of their pasts unfolds through their triad of internal monologues, culminating in an abrupt but necessary act of violence that brings the desperation under the surface of the story screaming into the forefront.

"Human Development" is the collection's standout, a carefully constructed renunciation of the trope of the model minority. The narrator, Anthony, is a Stanford graduate who teaches "rich kids with fake Adderall prescriptions" at a private high school about diversity. This year, he has abandoned his usual curriculum featuring lessons about microaggressions and sexual consent in favor of teaching the class Moby Dick, which he believes will be more effective in helping the students learn "about being decent humans." Anthony meets a man named Ben on a dating app, and the two become sexually and romantically involved, in that order. But as their relationship advances into actual intimacy, Anthony finds himself repelled by Ben's cheery disposition, his ambition and, most importantly, his enthusiastic embracing of his Cambodian heritage and identity. Anthony is tired of being the embodiment of the bright future of Cambodian Americans. In his words, he wants to be "free to fuck off and be lost." This story adroitly considers the repercussions of the pressures put upon young people of color to conform to high standards of respectability, to work harder and behave better than their white peers so they can elevate the race. Anthony tries to sabotage his relationship with Ben because Ben is a reminder of everything he was meant to achieve and become before he chose to "fuck off and be lost."

Afterparties ends with a fraught story of survival that considers the way tragedy can be appropriated by outsiders who try to center themselves in a loss that is not theirs. A Cambodian woman tells her young son about the shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in 1989 (a real-life event), where she is a teacher. Her story comes in response to his questions about a photograph he has found, which features the singer Michael Jackson surrounded by Cambodian children. Jackson visited the school shortly after the shooting, but did he come to bring comfort to a distraught community, or was his visit a convenient photo-op for publicity? Years later, the narrator mentions the shooting to one of her white colleagues, who was only a child in 1989 and not present on the day it happened. The other teacher responds by stating, "You know, I still think about all those lost little lives," and looking up at the sky, "at heaven, at a cosmic realm that was irrelevant to the parents of those children." Moments later, she is crying. This is not her tragedy, nor is it Michael Jackson's. Neither were there to witness the carnage. Neither knew the victims or their families. Neither have their own children that resemble those whose bodies littered the playground that day. As she watches her colleague in disbelief, the narrator remarks, "I wanted her to stop filtering the world through her own tears."

Anthony Veasna So died in December 2020 at the age of 28, eight months before the publication of Afterparties. On the one hand, it is impossible not to mourn the enormous loss of potential in terms of the other books So might have written. On the other, one gets the sense that this collection is a perfect distillation of that potential, that there is a unique synchronicity between the author's brain and what's on the page. It's okay to be sad that the party is over, but don't forget to be thankful you were invited.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

[The stories are] gloriously alive, full of humor, intelligence and quiet heartbreak…The force of So's talent is the clear throughline throughout this book.

An electric debut from new literary talent Anthony Veasna So, Afterparties zooms in on the complexities of growing up as the children of Cambodian refugees in California. With a surprising blend of biting wit and raw emotion, So stitches together tales of immigration, identity, queerness, and violence in a collection as bright and breathtaking as its cover.

Entertainment Weekly
Luminous...With profane wit and ruthless honesty, the book explores what it is to be young, brown, and queer in a world that so often prefers to see Asians as the model minority, or not at all.

Literary Hub
This is a collection that will stop you in your tracks...Afterparties feels like its own complete place, with loosely linked stories and side characters disappearing from the pages only to resurface center-stage in the next piece; it's a neighborhood you come to know and love.

Harper's Bazaar
Seamlessly transitioning between the absurd and the tenderhearted, balancing acerbic humor with sharp emotional depth, Afterparties offers an expansive portrait of the lives of Cambodian-Americans.

New York Times
[W]itty and sharply expressed short stories...The author is at his best when he has a lot of plates spinning. A few of the quieter stories struggle to leave an impression. He deftly shuffles some of the same characters in and out of stories...So's stories reimagine and reanimate the Central Valley.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
So (1992–2020) conjures literary magic in his hilarious and insightful posthumous debut, a collection that delves into a tightly knit community of Cambodian-American immigrants in California's Central Valley...What makes the stories so startling is the characters' ability to embrace life and all its messy beauty despite the darkness of the past.

Author Blurb Bryan Washington, author of Memorial
The sheer richness and energy of So's narratives can't be overstated—his characters are full of love, and full of longing, and full of laughter, and full of the possibilities that life offers them and also the ones it hides. It's rare and magical and wild to find queer life, as it's actually lived, on the page—or on any pages—with all its multiplicities and creases and paradoxes and curves, and yet So lays it out for us, sparing nothing and giving everything. I was in awe through the entire collection—and you will be, too. Afterparties is an actual marvel.

Author Blurb Douglas Stewart, author of Shuggie Bain
A bright and fearless debut, full of heart, joy, and unforgettable characters.

Author Blurb George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo
A wildly energetic, heartfelt, original debut by a young writer of exceptional promise. These stories, powered by So's skill with the telling detail, are like beams of wry, affectionate light, falling from different directions on a complicated, struggling, beloved American community.

Author Blurb Mary Karr, author of Lit: A Memoir
The mind-frying hilarity of Anthony Veasna So's first book of fiction settles him as the genius of social satire our age needs now more than ever. Few writers can handle firm plot action and wrenching pathos in such elegant prose. This unforgettable new voice is at once poetic and laugh-out-loud funny. These characters kept talking to me long after I closed the book I'm destined to read again and cannot wait to teach. Anthony Veasna So is a shiny new star in literature's firmament and Afterparties his first classic.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Harry C
Hope all the stories are as good as the first one!
So far I've only read the first story about the desolation within Chuck's Donuts shop, the woman runs it with her two daughters and the strange man who comes in every night and orders an apple fritter but never takes a bite. I envisioned a present day West Coast version of the Hopper painting, Nighthawks. It's funny, sad, slightly scary and the women's experiences with men kind of makes me want to try to make up for all my own faults as a father and a husband. If the other stories are half as good as this one, this book is a winner.

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Cambodians in Stockton, California

Buddhas at the Khmer New Year Festival in Stockton Several stories in Anthony Veasna So's short story collection Afterparties take place in Stockton, California, the author's hometown. Stockton is home to the fifth largest population of ethnically Cambodian people in the United States as of 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. A 2018 study by U.S. News and World Report found Stockton to be the most diverse city in the United States.

Stockton is located in California's Central Valley, about 80 miles northeast of San Francisco. Its racial demographic makeup in 2018 was 42% Hispanic, 24% Asian, 19% white and 13% Black. However, it is far from being a bastion of racial tolerance and equity, as there are large income, education and opportunity gaps among the races, with white households earning roughly twice the income of Black households. The city has also suffered from a drug and gang violence problem for decades, an issue that disproportionately affects people of color, including Cambodians. Many refugees who fled to the U.S. during the Southeast Asia conflicts of the 1970s (the Vietnam War, the Laos Civil War and the Cambodian Genocide) came from rural backgrounds and the U.S. government made little effort to assimilate them into their new environments. Upon arrival, many lived in low-income housing projects and had difficulty finding work. The legacy of this rough start is evident in the racial disparities, the prevalence of gangs and the challenges faced by the characters in Afterparties.

On January 17, 1989, a 24-year-old white man named Patrick Purdy came to Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton's predominantly Southeast Asian neighborhood of Park Village and opened fire on the playground, killing five children, all of whom were of Cambodian or Vietnamese descent, and injuring 30 others. It is believed that the crime was racially motivated. The shooting brought the city and its Cambodian population to the forefront of the national conversation about gun control and resulted in the passage of California's Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act, which banned semi-automatic guns in the state. The Asian Pacific Self-Development and Residential Association (APSARA) was also founded in the aftermath of the attack. APSARA is an organization that offers assistance with housing, medical care, educational and cultural resources, and more to the Asian and Pacific Islander community in Stockton. They were recently provided with a loan from Stockton City Council to renovate the Park Village Apartments, a housing project home to a large population of Cambodian residents.

Stockton's Cambodian Oral History Project, created in partnership with several local schools, the San Joaquin Historical Society and APSARA, offers Stockton's Cambodian residents the opportunity to tell their stories, many of which involve fleeing Pol Pot's regime. The project's goal is to educate the public, including younger Cambodian Americans, about the genocide and to provide a safe space for the survivors to reflect on their trauma.

The city is home to the Cambodian Buddhist temple Wat Dhammararam, a popular tourist attraction that hosts a celebration of the Cambodian New Year each year in April. The temple features a number of large and brightly colored statues, including a 50-foot reclining Buddha.

Buddhas featured at the Khmer New Year Festival in Stockton, California, via Pxfuel

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

By Lisa Butts

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